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Calif. medical pot shops abound, despite order

/ Source: The Associated Press

A surge in medical marijuana in California has left communities trying to regulate or ban the drug. This wine country town has welcomed a dispensary as a strong source of tax revenue during the recession.

Peace in Medicine marijuana dispensary is a clean, modern operation in a former auto dealership, and has more registered patients than the town has residents. It could easily be mistaken for a doctor's office, if not for the three security guards and overwhelming skunky smell of pot.

"I guess I had my prejudices that it was going to have bars on the windows and be something very obvious and unappealing to the public," longtime city councilman Larry Robinson said.

Now the dispensary is about to open a second location, next to a Starbucks.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world to be leading this thing," said Peace in Medicine's operator, Robert Jacob.

In Los Angeles — the marijuana dispensary capital of the country — about 800 dispensaries are estimated to have opened despite a 2007 order halting new pot operations.

The explosion is blamed on a loophole in the City Council's moratorium. Final regulations are still not in place.

The struggle has been linked to the vagueness of the ballot initiative that California voters passed in 1996 legalizing medical use of the drug. The measure makes no mention of how or where the drug can be sold.

"I think Los Angeles has made this more difficult by not having acted sooner," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group. "There has been pressure for a long time on the City Council to do something."

The issue took on greater urgency after the Obama administration announced looser federal marijuana guidelines last month.

Federal crackdowns followed the 1996 vote, and fear of prosecution kept pot storefronts out of many areas. But looser federal guidelines, first signaled by Attorney General Eric Holder in February and further outlined in an October memo, have emboldened would-be dispensary operators. The new guidelines simply instruct federal prosecutors to avoid prosecution when dispensaries comply with state medical marijuana laws.

Sacramento is looking to other pot-tolerant cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and Malibu for insight into keeping medical marijuana available but in check.

Most of the state capital's 39 registered dispensaries opened this year before the city passed an emergency moratorium in June.

"They're seeing a little bit of leniency in the federal government that they haven't seen before," said Michelle Heppner, who is leading the city's effort to regulate dispensaries. "They're seeing this as a perfect time in their movement to progress."

One key for cities is finding a way to ensure dispensaries truly operate as nonprofits as called for by state Attorney General Jerry Brown.

Officials in Fresno have decided the best way to avoid problems with dispensaries is to not have any. In 2006, the City Council passed a zoning ordinance requiring any pot dispensaries to comply with both state and federal law, and the U.S. government still bans the drug outright.

A state judge last month sided against nine Fresno dispensaries that opened this year, upholding the zoning ordinance that forbids them and ordering them to close.

Smaller cities are also turning to zoning laws. In Claremont, a college town about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, Darrell Kruse sought to open a dispensary in mid-2006 but the zoning code did not permit them.

Kruse opened Claremont All-Natural Nutrition Aids Buyers Information Service (CANNABIS) anyway. Several months later, he was convicted of operating without a business license and fined. A state court rejected his appeal.